In a thinly populated, economically struggling patch of eastern Oklahoma near the border, Joshua L. Wheeler had a difficult childhood and very few options. The experience from his childhood helped shape him as a man who was comfortable with significant amounts of responsibility, family members said.
“In that area, if you didn’t go to college, you basically had a choice of the oil fields or the military,” said his uncle, Jack Shamblin. “The Army really suited him; he always had such robust energy and he always wanted to help people, and he felt he was doing that.”
The Army offered an escape, but it turned into much more. He made a career in uniform, first as Army Ranger and later as a highly decorated combat veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Army’s elite Delta Force, a secretive counterterrorism force first established in the late 1970s.
Joshua Wheeler enlisted in 1995, and in 1997 he joined the Army Rangers, a specially trained group within the Army.
From 2004, he was assigned to Army Special Operations Command, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., which includes Delta Force, the extremely selective unit that carries out some of the military’s riskiest operations. He completed specialized training in several fields, including parachute jumping, mountaineering, leading infantry units, explosives and urban combat.
On October 22, 2015, he became the first U.S. service member to die in combat against the Islamic State after getting hit by small-arms fire during a raid carried out by Kurdish forces on a militant-run prison in Hawijah, Iraq. The mission freed some 70 prisoners who U.S. officials think would have been executed and dumped in a mass grave later that day.
When Kurdish commandos went on a helicopter raid to rescue about 70 hostages who were about to be executed by Islamic State militants, the plan called for the Americans who accompanied them to offer support, not join in the action, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said on Friday. But then the Kurdish attack on the prison where the hostages were held stalled, and Sergeant Wheeler responded.
“He ran to the sound of the guns,” Mr. Carter said. “Obviously, we’re very saddened that he lost his life,” he said, adding, “I’m immensely proud of this young man.”
A former Delta Force officer who had commanded Sergeant Wheeler in Iraq and had been briefed on the mission said that the Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga, tried to blast a hole in the compound’s outer wall, but could not. Sergeant Joshua Wheeler and another American, part of a team of 10 to 20 Delta Force operators who were present, ran up to the wall, breached it with explosives, and were the first ones through the hole.
“When you blow a hole in a compound wall, all the enemy fire gets directed toward that hole, and that is where he was,” said the former officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation.
The military does not officially acknowledge the existence of the Delta Force, the Army counterpart to Navy SEAL teams.
The mission itself was a success, and the more than 70 hostages were freed. A few of the Peshmerga fighters were injured, while five ISIL militants were detained during the operation and approximately 20 were killed.
Sergeant Wheeler was a veteran of 14 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, with a chest full of medals. His honors included four Bronze Stars with the letter V, awarded for valor in combat; and seven Bronze Stars, awarded for heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone.
Arlington National Cemetery
Plot: Section 60, Grave 10348